Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Glory Days (2021)

By L. Jon Wertheim

Year-in-review books usually represent something of "hanging fruit" when it comes to books. Pick a year, review what happened, perhaps overstate its importance, and ... you have a book. 

"Glory Days" is different. L. Jon Wertheim sets out to make a case that the summer of 1984, give or take a few weeks, represented a transformational moment in the world of sports. What's more, he does such a good job at it that the reader is forced to shake his head after a while and say, "Yup, he could be right."

That's because even if such transformations don't work like an on-off switch, they certainly were centered in that particular summer. In hindsight, it was a significant and crowded time for sports.

Want a list? Happy to help.

* The biggest event of the summer was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. That particular sporting festival was in big trouble at that point, with few cities/countries wanting to take on such a major event as host because of the costs involved. Even though the Eastern Bloc countries didn't show up via a boycott, Los Angeles proved you could host the Games successfully ... and make a profit along the way.

* Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played their first NBA Finals against each other. Not only was it great theater, but it started a rivalry that lasted through the 1980s and attracted attention from a growing number of sports fans. 

* Speaking of basketball, a kid named Michael Jordan came out of North Carolina to join the NBA. Not only was he about to become one of the greatest players ever, but he revolutionized sports marketing with a deal with Nike that gave him his own signature line of shoes. 

* While Wayne Gretzky already had achieved almost mythical status in the National Hockey League with unbelievable scoring totals, he still hadn't won a Stanley Cup entering the 1983-84 season. The New York Islanders were always in the way. But in 1984, Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers beat the Islanders in the finals, giving them the Stanley Cup. The Great One had taken the last step, and it helped the NHL start down a road that helped it claim a firm status as a fourth major league sport along side of MLB, NFL and NBA.

* ESPN had been around for a few years by that point, but it figured out a way to make money. It charged cable companies a monthly fee for each subscriber who watched it. That made it financial solvent that summer, and its future was assured. ESPN soon became the most valuable media property in the business, and began a run of success that lasted into the 2010s. 

* The NCAA lost an anti-trust lawsuit involving television rights of its member schools filed by the University of Oklahoma. Suddenly, universities weren't restricted to rare appearances on networks on Saturdays (and, as it turned out, every other day of the week).  Games could be shown anywhere and everywhere ... and piles of money soon followed. 

* It was also the summer of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, who dominated the tennis courts in spectacular ways. The Chicago Cubs turned their fortunes around and reached the playoffs, creating a new set of fans through broadcasts on cable television. Mike Tyson was just coming on to the scene, losing in the Olympic trials but showing that he would be the proverbial force to be reckoned with in the future. 

That's a lot. Wertheim also has chapters on a few unlikely events. This was the summer when rock and roll merged with wrestling, thanks in part to a chance airplane flight in which Cyndi Lauper sat next to Lou Albano. That relationship had its entertaining moments and did give pro wrestling some national status, but feels like an odd fit here. The Jacksons' Victory Tour gets a chapter, in part because the family that owned the New England Patriots at the time ran the tour and lost millions along the way. The author also covers a sleeper movie called "The Karate Kid." I'm not sure I buy the idea that the film helped us down the road toward Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting, but it is a good story. 

This all could have been done rather routinely, but luckily Wertheim did his homework. He talked to a variety of people who were there at the creation of these events, and did plenty of other research as well. This is really the key to this book - there is information here that at the least is little known and at most new to virtually everyone. What's more, it's almost always interesting. Wertheim is a fine reporter and writer, with several good books and articles to his credit, and he obviously threw himself into this project with full enthusiasm.

I am duty-bound to report on one little slip-up along the way. In a brief item on the movie "The Natural," the text says the climatic scene was set in a place that was supposed to be Wrigley Field in Chicago. While such a scene took place, it occurred earlier in the movie. The big scenes, including the last one, were shot in the departed War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo. That movie came out in 1984 too, and anyone from Western New York will tell how that film doubled as a love letter to "The Old Rockpile" that started something of a baseball renaissance in the area that continues to this day.

"Glory Days" is irresistible. Those who lived through 1984 will enjoy the memories of all that went on, and those who didn't will learn much about the proverbial question asked by the popular 1980s band Talking Heads, "How did we get here?"  Many will race through it with a smile every step of the way.

Five stars

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